FAMOUS 1914-1918

Britain lost one million souls during the war of 1914-18 and of the millions who came home to the ‘Land fit for heroes’ a number went on to achieve their version of stardom or notoriety…

By Mark Barnes

Fame seems to attract all the life at the shallow end of the pond these days. There is a veritable industry of people promoting, living, reporting or loving the wholly superficial dream of being famous for it’s own sake; regardless of an absence of wit, talent or an iota of class. The warblings of foot-faced singers or the backseat clinches of full backs go right over my head.

We can take some small comfort that when a marine is killed in Helmand Province, he gets his photo and a few paragraphs in a news report. This is not so far removed from the media of the Great War, when the deaths of local men would be reported in the regional press or the likes of the Territorial Gazette. The war created heroes, just as Iraq and Afghanistan have done today, but of course the numbers involved then were out of all proportion and military heroes are somewhat down the pecking order in 2009.

The Great War robbed us of many great “unknowns”. Prospective doctors, inventors, artists and thinkers went into the maelstrom and in passing took their potential and hope with them. Largely anonymous in the annals of the battlefield they are lost giants of the peace.

Britain lost one million souls during the war of 1914-18 and of the millions who came home to the ‘Land fit for heroes’ a number went on to achieve their version of stardom or notoriety. Here, the authors bring us a sample of the men who rose above the conflict to achieve greatness, or lasting fame in later life. They seem so much more substantial for ‘having been a soldier’. For many, the physical and psychological wounds they endured had a marked effect on their futures.

The authors have ignored sportsmen and those whose fame is confined to the age prior to ours. They prefer, in the main, to colour in the wartime experiences of men who remain household names or have some residual importance to us. Associations and friendships are brought to life as comrades fall beside them.

Here you meet Godfrey, Arnold Ridley; the mountaineer George Mallory; CS Lewis and Harold McMillan. The army doctor Alexander Fleming experimented on Petrie dishes at Wimereux while faces of the dead staring out of the mud are said to have influenced JRR Tolkien. The future Sherlock Holmes, Basil Rathbone, won the MC creeping round no mans land, sometimes disguised as a tree; while his sidekick Dr Watson, Nigel Bruce, suffered wounds affecting the remainder of his life.

The serial killer John Christie used an alleged exposure to mustard gas to excuse the eight murders he committed, while the effervescent Winston Churchill commanded an infantry battalion during his post Gallipoli political exile. The subjects cover the spectrum of ‘fame’ as the youth of today might understand it.

In a way this sample of men in khaki carry a torch for the miners, plumbers, solicitors and dustmen who served with them and who will always be our own. There is a huge appetite to rediscover the men who fought in the Great War and as time goes by this will no doubt extend to later conflicts.  I’d quite like to see a second volume if there is scope for one because there are always so many other people to learn about. While Lyn MacDonald and Max Arthur may have opened up a world of the  “forgotten voices”; the authors have succeeded in showing why, for many ‘greats’ of the 20th Century, the First World War put them on a path to fame without the need for a phone in vote. It would be entirely wrong to suggest that a taking part in a calamitous world war is a more admirable kick-start to fame than singing on the telly; they were as much of their time as we are of ours. Horrific as things must have been, their experience is surely more enduring than the pursuit of the allotted ‘fifteen minutes’ we see so much of today.

Published by Pen & Sword Books Ltd. £25.00.

ISBN 978 1 84415 642 9.

Mark Barnes

Mark Barnes is a longstanding friend of WHO, providing features, photography and reviews. He has contributed to The Times of London and other publications. He is the author of The Liberation of Europe (pub 2016) and If War Should Come due later in 2020.